Religious fundamentalism and male violence

Issue 

Film maker ANAND PATWARDHAN participated in the anti-Vietnam War movement as a student in the US in 1970-72 and has been involved in a variety of social movements in India. His latest film, Father, Son and Holy War, is a documentary exploring the links between masculinity, religious violence and the oppression of women. The result is an extremely powerful film, which took seven years to make, and which includes footage of some of the most terrifying episodes of fundamentalism in India, such as the riots that occurred after the destruction of the Babri Mosque, and the election campaigns of some of the right-wing fundamentalist groups such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Shiv Sena. Anand was recently in Australia for the screening of his film at the Sydney Film Festival. SUJATHA FERNANDES interviewed him for Green Left Weekly.

Father, Son and Holy War depicts the upsurge in fundamentalism that has occurred in recent years. In the context of the sweep to power of the BJP and the Shiv Sena in three states in recent elections, how serious a threat does it pose?

It is a very serious threat, because it has shifted the agenda of the left away from class issues to fighting the basic threat of fundamentalism. I do believe that even now there is a silent majority who do not want the violence or the hatred that is being spread. But that may not last very long, because every day the fundamentalist forces gain strength.

Centrist forces like the Congress Party are disintegrating and have been more or less exposed by corruption. The people of India are faced with the choice between corruption and communalism.

In 1989 the fundamentalists had three seats in power. After the Rat Yatra, the chariot journey that led to Ayodhya and then the destruction of the mosque, they became the biggest opposition party, and now they are even threatening to come to power by the next elections. They have won the recent elections in Maharashtra and in Gujarat, which are the richest states in India.

More and more sections of the elite are joining the fundamentalists because the industrialist and business sector will ultimately back the group which they think can maintain power and stability.

There is a part of the film where a religious leader, addressing a mass rally, claims that "when the rulers have failed, the saints must step in". How much is religious fundamentalism a result of the crisis of capitalism and the collapse of the Soviet Union?

This is a worldwide phenomenon in the last 10 years as the Soviet Union began to break up. It can be seen by the ethnic warfare in Yugoslavia, and even in the former Soviet Union. In the former East Germany neo-Nazis have become much stronger.

The free market economy is not spiritually satisfying. When socialism was an ideal, it gave people something to work towards. To the extent that the free market economy and the Western powers have excised this concept of socialism from people's consciousness, they have created a vacuum, and that is being filled by religious revival.

Your film presents the views of a broad range of forces opposing communalism, from religious reformers to left activists who view religion and particularly fundamentalism as a tool used by the ruling class to divide people from one another. Have these groups formed coalitions or united fronts against communalism?

Those coalitions get formed wherever there is an actual struggle taking place. As there is a rise in fundamentalism, there is also a rise in movements for change, and people are fighting it in different ways. The left movement is one way, but outside the organised left forces, there are people who think that religion is being hijacked by the fundamentalists, that religion is not about intolerance. They are part of the movement for a secular society.

Some religions actually grew out of protests against social injustices. One of the reasons religion has survived for so long is because they did incorporate some of those principles of social justice. In that sense there is definitely room in every religion for liberation theology, for people who consider the social justice aspect of their religion to be paramount.

In my previous film, In the Name of God, I showed different groups, the liberation theologians, the left, and the lower castes who have also been oppressed by the Brahmanic higher castes. In Father, Son and Holy War, I am also showing women who are oppressed by religion.

How effectively has the left mobilised to challenge the spread of religious fundamentalism? What tactics are they using against the right-wing forces?

The left are the main organised force who have consistently fought fundamentalism. The left is not as strong as it used to be, and this is one reason the fundamentalists have grown.

However, where the left is strong, in Kerala and West Bengal, you have a much lower incidence of communal violence. Even where lower caste organisations were in the forefront, like in Bihar, there is a much lower incidence of communal violence. There are unity committees all around the country, many of which were part of the left, or influenced by the left.

The left has been an inspiration for the secular movement in the fight against communalism. But I don't think that the left can hold back the tide of communalism on its own. There has to be a very broad alliance against the fundamentalists.

Your film deals with machismo in India and the links between patriarchy, male dominance and religion. How does your analysis of patriarchy sit with a socialist analysis? Do you see male domination as the principal source of women's oppression, or do you see class relations as the source?

I don't think that feminism and socialism are separate. I don't think that you can have a class analysis without a gender analysis, because it is an inquiry into why social injustice exists which makes us ask the question in the first place: what is class, who is the oppressor and who is being oppressed?

The part of the left which I hold valuable has thought about these things. Engels wrote about it. I don't think that the analysis that you see in the film is very different to what Engels was talking about.

The question arises because in the film I show a statue of the Venus of Willendorf, which is one of the earliest statues found, 20,000 years old, to show that there was a time before patriarchy when women were much more central to society and the economy.

At the end of the film I say, "Memories of prehistory are born not to determine the past but to imagine the future". If you can conceive of a time before patriarchy it is empowering for the future. If you don't have a positive vision of the future, you can't actually generate the energy to do something about change. You can't just intellectualise.

The film is not saying that men are biologically violent and women are biologically non-violent. It is really talking about the baggage of history and the conditioning by which the construct of manhood has meant that your honour depends on being aggressive. Women are property and become part of the conquest.

One trend within Western academia is to see things such as fundamentalism as expressions of another culture, and to denigrate them is to impose your own Western conceptions onto other cultures. What we saw in your film was something happening in another culture, yet at the start of the film you urged the audience not to watch from a detached stance, but to see parallels to their lives here.

Outside India, during discussions with the audience, I usually get the reaction "Oh, in the Third World things are really bad. How awful it is for Indian women" — as if in America and Australia women have a wonderful existence, as if machismo is isolated to Third World countries.

I was very conscious about this, and I kept making cross-cultural references in the film. When I talk about the sati, I first talk about how witches were burnt in Europe. In 300 years more than 100,000 women were burnt at the stake. I talk about Christianity and how women's sexuality was robbed.

I show Macho Man being sent by Star TV to India, and how the myths of Rambo and Schwarzenegger and other Western heroes are feeding into Indian patriarchy. There is a cross-fertilisation of patriarchal images.

While I was showing my film in America, this was brought home dramatically in the Oklahoma bombing. If you look at what these militias are about, it is strongly connected with machismo. If you look at George Bush's speeches before the US bombed Iraq, they openly talked about getting rid of the wimp factor.

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